Writers Chat 15: Karen Lee Street on “Edgar Allan Poe and The Jewel of Peru” (Oneworld: London, 2018)

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Karen, you’re very welcome to my Writers Chat. We last chatted in September 2016 upon the publication of the first in the Edgar Allan Poe trilogy Edgar Allan Poe and The London Monster. (I have re-published this chat below).

Edgar Allan Poe and The Jewel of Peru, the second in the trilogy was published in late August 2018 to critical acclaim and rave reviews including a starred review in Publishers Weekly, Shots Magazine calling it “a cleverly penned work of intrigue and enigma”, and the Historical Novel Review recommending it “for lovers of Poe’s writings, for those who enjoy the Gothic and macabre, and for all historical mystery fans.”

You are currently working on  the third novel in the trilogy:  Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead, set in Paris 1849. Point Blank Books (Oneworld Publications) is the UK publisher; Pegasus Books, USA; AST in Russia; Vulkan in Serbia; and Paris Yayincik in Turkey. Previous publications include Writing & Selling Crime Film Screenplays and Tattoos and Motorcycles (a collection of interconnected short stories), articles on screenwriting and cross-arts collaboration, along with  a number of commissioned screenplays.

KLS: Thanks very much for chatting with me about the books, Shauna. Your insightful questions really got me thinking in a useful way as I try to finish book III: Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead.

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Edgar Allan Poe’s House (Philadelphia) – Image  by Karen Lee Street

SG: That’s so difficult, isn’t it – promoting one book whilst writing the next. Well, I have to say I devoured Edgar Allan Poe and The Jewel of Peru in almost one sitting but what struck me the most was that as well as serving as a sequel to Edgar Allan Poe and The London Monster, it is also a stand alone novel. Can you talk a little bit about how the three books in the trilogy are connected yet – it seems to me – written so that they can be read independently.

KLS: I’m glad you felt the first two books in the trilogy work as stand-alone novels as that was the intention and it’s normally essential when writing a crime or mystery series. For example, I’m a real fan of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels, but have been reading them completely out of order, which hasn’t bothered me at all, despite the inevitable jumping around in the development of his personal life and, more subtly, his character.

My trilogy is connected by its sleuthing duo: the writer Edgar Allan Poe and his character ur-detective C. Auguste Dupin. They are presented as old friends with similar interests but rather different approaches to life, Poe being more creative and emotional and Dupin strives to be very rational. Each novel sets up a mystery that must be solved, the ‘A’ story if you like. Other story strands are introduced that are further explored in subsequent novels. For example, Helena Loddiges is mentioned in Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster as she has hired Poe to edit an ornithology book. In Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru, she brings Poe a mystery to solve. C. Auguste Dupin’s nemesis is introduced in book I, but he eludes Dupin until Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead in which their attempt to apprehend him is the main story.  The duo have very personal connections to the mysteries they must solve in each book and their adventures influence subtle changes in their characters.

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Magic Lantern Slide – The Raven. Painted by Joseph Boggs Beale (Philadelphia, 1841 – 1926) Image provided by Karen Lee Street

 

SG: I enjoyed that personal/social/political thread running through the books. Once again you provide readers with a wonderfully intriguing opening (if not a little macabre!) inviting us into possibly the most striking element of the book – how you evoke birds, their worlds (both real and symbolic) through some wonderful sensual writing. Can you tell us a little about your research? I am sure it must have been fascinating.

KLS: I suppose the notion to write about birds was inspired by a favourite childhood book that belonged to my grandfather:  Birds of America, edited by T. Gilbert Pearson of the National Association of Audubon Societies, with colour illustrations by Louis Agassiz Fuertes. Looking at those images as a child, prompted an interest in birds, as did Brief Bird Biographies, written and illustrated by a great-Uncle, J. Fletcher Street, who was an artist and amateur ornithologist. My father included birds frequently in his paintings, which was another inspiration.

The notion to write a story featuring ornithology and ornithomancy came from living in London Fields, Hackney, which I was surprised to learn had been the site of Loddiges plant nursery, the largest exotic plant nursery in Europe in the 19th century.  I discovered that owner George Loddiges was a keen bird collector, which was a popular Victorian hobby. His famous hummingbird cabinet is held by the British Museum. This in part inspired the idea for the trilogy as Poe had gone to school in Stoke Newington, Hackney as a child and it’s quite possible he might have visited Loddiges nursery which was a tourist destination during that time. I also learned that George Loddiges hired Andrew Mathews to collect birds and plants for him in Peru, and that Mathews also did collecting for Bartram’s plant nursery in Philadelphia before he died in Peru, 1843. This connection proved a useful plot point in Jewel of Peru.

As I continued my research, odd links between Poe, Hackney and Philadelphia suggested a bird motif. Poe’s most famous poem is probably “The Raven”, allegedly inspired by Charles Dickens’s novel Barnaby Rudge, which features Dickens’ pet raven Grip. Further, Dickens had Grip stuffed when he died and he now lives in the rare books room at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Additionally, in the mid-nineteenth century, Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences had the largest and taxonomically most complete ornithological collection in the world, so certainly Poe would have been well-acquainted with the Victorian obsession for bird collecting. The sad sight of ‘collected’ birds displayed in the British Museum made me keen to include a subtle subplot regarding endangered birds. For example, when Poe lived in Philadelphia, there were still huge flocks of passenger pigeons that would literally darken the sky as they passed through the area.  Now they are extinct due to the reckless hunting of them.

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Loddiges Green House (Hackney, London) Image from Karen Lee Street

SG: Isn’t it wonderful that you have, in a way, brought the birds back to life and fascinating to hear how and where the trail of research led you to the heart of the story. I enjoyed the power play and games that each of the characters bring to the narrative. In particular, Miss Helena Loddiges and Rowena Fontaine (in disguise). Given that Poe and Dupin are the main players, you manage to incorporate some incredibly strong female characters. Was this deliberate or did the story evolve this way?  

KLS: Very deliberate. Poe adored his wife Virginia and his mother-in-law ‘Muddy’ and I wanted to show that happy aspect of his life. Not much is written about Virginia’s character in the biographical material concerning Poe — she’s described as beautiful but that’s about it. I wanted to portray her as an intelligent woman Poe could have an intellectual conversation with, a woman who was very loyal to her friends and loved ones and therefore would insist on being involved in the investigation. Rowena Fontaine appears first in London Monster and uses her skills in unethical ways, but when she achieves her dream of being on stage, due to her undeniable talent, she becomes much more gracious and tries to end the vendetta between her husband and Poe. Muddy is very strong also, but in a highly practical sense; without her, Virginia and Poe would struggle to exist at all. Helena Loddiges is quite eccentric, but is an expert in her fields (ornithology and taxidermy). She has the strength of character to defy her father and leave the safety of home alone to seek justice for someone she loves.

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Owls Image courtesy of the Audubon Society, provided by Karen Lee Street       

SG: You also stay true to the politics of the day without taking the reader out of the spell of the mystery. I know part of the action is based on real riots in Philadelphia in 1844. Was it strange writing about historical riots (about immigrants) at a time when the US Government was talking about building walls to keep illegal immigrants out of America?

KLS: I decided to set Jewel of Peru in Philadelphia when I first thought of developing the Poe/ Dupin sleuthing duo into a trilogy, so that was well before the current US administration. When I started reading about the Nativist riots of 1844, I was shocked that we had never studied that part of Philadelphia history in school. (I was born in Philly and went to school in Pennsylvania.) It was strange after researching the 1844 riots when the term ‘nativist’ was suddenly (or so it seemed to me) being used in connection with current events and talk about building the wall. It was also odd for me to read feedback from a reader who felt I was referencing contemporary events too overtly in the riot scenes when actually I was writing about true events.

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Nativist riots in Philadelphia —  July 1844, Image provided by Karen Lee Street

SG: Yes, us writers don’t always plan everything. There’s often some strange synchronicity when writing about one era and finding that the themes and even events suddenly appear in your present day. Very unnerving!

I have to confess that while I have enjoyed some of Poe’s writing, I wouldn’t be familiar with much of his works. One of the other layers to your trilogy are the subtle and clever references and nods to Poe’s own writing. How important was this part of the book for you, and would you like to comment on the intricate nature of threading references through the narrative?

The references to Poe’s works within the books, particularly Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster, are really just meant to be fun for those who know some of Poe’s work—an extension of Poe appearing in a story with one of his own characters. It’s not necessary at all to know Poe’s stories or poems to follow the plot. It would be wonderful, though, if someone new to Poe read the book and became interested in reading some of Poe’s work.

There are other allusions and connections explored in the trilogy that I think spring from the basic nature of writing historical fiction and creating an alternative biography/ history. In researching Poe, I read about some of the events that influenced his stories—for example, the true murder that inspired his tale “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”. Allusions to Poe’s stories play with the idea of what might trigger a writer’s imagination and inspire a creative work. When considering the idea of alternative history, odd connections I found when doing historical research provoked story ideas. Had Poe ever been taken to visit the renowned glasshouses of the Loddiges plant nursery in Hackney when he lived in Stoke Newington? Or did he ever visit the famous Bartram Gardens when he lived in Philadelphia? These ‘every day’ events might never be recorded in a biography, but might have inspired Poe in some way.

And finally, when one creates a story or a character that becomes part of the memory of its readers, it seems to take on its own life. This is relevant to Poe the reader, who was well-versed in the classics, but as an editor and a critic, also read enormous amounts of contemporary literature. In book III in particular, I explore the way characters and stories he admired might influence him, particularly in knowing that characters and narratives that live on after the writer. As Poe said:

“Ye who read are still among the living, but I who write shall have long since gone my way into the region of shadows (…) and yet a few will find much to ponder upon in the characters here graven with a stylus of iron.”

What a wonderful quotation, Karen! Now, some fun questions:

  • Surf or Turf? ‘Surf’ for food; ‘turf’ as an environment. (Too many sharks in Australia.)
  • What’s your favourite unappreciated novel? Anything by Marilynne Robinson— she can’t be appreciated enough. Also, Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm.
  • Oh I’m a big fan of Robinson too. Now what writer – living or dead – would you invite to high tea? Perhaps Gabriel García Márquez as his books were formative reading and were so exciting and fresh when I first devoured them. (I would invite myself to high tea at Edward Gorey’s to see his amazing house and cats and to hopefully find his life matched his stories.)
  • What’s on your to-read pile now? It’s a never-diminishing pile; at it’s top are two film scripts and Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre-Dame, which I really need to re-read while completing the editing of Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead. 
  • What is the last book you read? I just finished Alice Munro’s short story collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage bought at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris while on a research trip.  Munro creates such memorable characters and her descriptions are effortlessly visual and original. I’ve also been re-reading Eugène Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris — again, essential research.

Karen, Thanks, once again for being so generous with your answers. I wish you much continued success with the sleuthing duo of Poe and Dupin. 

Readers, keep up to date with Karen and check out her website www.KarenLeeStreet.com, visit/like the Poe/ Dupin trilogy Facebook page:  https://www.facebook.com/edgarallanpoecaugustedupin/  and follow her on twitter: @karenleestreet and instagram: karenleestreet

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WRITERS CHAT, SEPTEMBER 2016

I’m delighted to welcome Karen Lee Street to my blog where she discusses her debut novel Edgar Allan Poe and The London Monster  (Point Blank, (Oneworld Publications)) and answers questions sent in from a Dublin Crime Book Group.

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Karen, this is the first of a trilogy which focuses on re-imagined or imagined adventures of the American author Edgar Allan Poe. Let’s start with that curiosity. Are the adventures re-imagined or imagined?

Both! The adventures of Edgar Allan Poe in London are primarily imagined; Poe did live in London as a child and I reference places and people he knew then, but Poe did not return to Europe as an adult, despite some wild tales he fabricated regarding exploits in Greece and St. Petersburg. Poe’s imagined adventures in the book are provoked by a collection of letters allegedly written by his grandparents that implicate them as the London Monster who slashed the skirts and derrières of over fifty women from 1788 – 1790; the victims, dates, and the locations of the crimes noted in the letters are based on fact, but the circumstances are heavily re-imagined. In my novel, C. Auguste Dupin, the great ‘ratiocinator’, is released from the confines of Poe’s three detective tales to investigate the letters Poe has inherited. I imagined a backstory for Dupin, extrapolating from the few details offered about his personal circumstances in Poe’s stories; this backstory sets up his own adventures in London and supports the key themes of the novel.

And they tell us backstories aren’t important! Point Blank have given you a wonderful cover and the title. Were you lucky enough to have a say in either or both?

My working title for the original stand-alone novel was C. Auguste Dupin and the London Monster, but when I pitched it as a trilogy of mysteries, my agent pointed out that it would be better to mention Edgar Allan Poe in the three titles. The sequel titles (at this stage) are Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru and Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead.  I was forwarded the proposed dust jacket during the proofreading process and, happily, liked it very much as did friends I showed it to. I am the sort of bookshop browser who will pick up a book because I find the cover intriguing, so this was an enormous relief.

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Yes. It touches on all the themes – the crime, the Gothic, the mystery and I love the black and white with the hint of gold. Now, you’ve previously spoken about your early introduction to Poe – what part do you think early reading plays in an author’s later writing or reading?

This is such an interesting question — I hadn’t realised how much my earliest reading material influenced this trilogy until contemplating it. I lived at my grandparents’ house for about a year and half, aged eight to nine, and spent an enormous amount of time reading my mother’s old books: the Nancy Drew mysteries, Grimm’s Fairytales, The Mother West Wind “Why” Stories, and The Book of Marvels, a collection of stories by adventurer Richard Halliburton which not only made me desperate to travel, but also inspired a subplot in Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru. (I’ve kept my grandparents’ copy of the book.) I also devoured all the biographies and magical adventure books in the school library. There’s a bit of all of that in the trilogy. Reading Poe himself came a couple of years later, when I enjoyed giving myself nightmares.

How curious! Enjoying giving yourself nightmares. It’s that push/pull thing, isn’t it. You’re scared but just also love it. I think it’s like loving Bertha in the attic in Jane Eyre but also being scared by her. And what a reading selection you’ve given me!

Letters have often been used as a device to tell alternative stories to the ‘main’ – I’m thinking here of Pamela – and the letters of Poe’s grandparents are used to great effect in this novel. In fact they are used, really, to tell the ‘real’ story and also provide commentary on relationships, gender, and sexuality. Can you comment on this?

Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos is an epistolary novel I admire for its depiction of the social mores of a particular time, place, and social group, but also for how a rather cruel game has emotional repercussions for its instigators. I wanted to do a similar thing with the letters exchanged by Poe’s grandparents; they reveal a secret history, but also chart the changes in their relationship and how actions driven by passion, jealousy, pride, and fear lead to a back-against-the-wall kind of choice that changes someone forever. Further, the characters’ choices are limited by their social class, financial position, and — in the case of Poe’s grandmother— gender. Indeed, many of her problems stem from the limited options she has due to being a woman and yet she proves herself to be a clever survivor who defies social conventions and twice puts love and personal independence before financial security.

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A Dublin Crime Book group have read this book and loved it. They have a few questions for you:

How did you come to link the real crimes of the London Monster to Poe?

Oddly, I can’t actually remember a ‘eureka moment’ of coming to the idea of linking Edgar Allan Poe to the London Monster; I think it was a case of stored up potential story ideas coalescing into something.  When I first read about the London Monster, I was fascinated by the story and felt it could be the basis of a great film with the right framework. It seemed likely to me that the person sent to prison for the crimes had been falsely accused (for the reward offered), so who was the true culprit? I first read about the Monster in John Ashton’s Old Times, A Picture of Social Life at the End of the Eighteenth Century: Collected and Illustrated from the Satirical and Other Sketches of the Day. (John C. Nimmo, 1885). Ashton’s recounts the Monster attacks in quite a jocular way, reflecting the sardonic tone of late 18th century cartoons featuring the Monster by James Gillray and Isaac Cruikshank. Jan Bondeson adopts the same tone in his book The London Monster, a Sanguinary Tale.  I think these lighthearted approaches to the Monster’s odd crimes reminded me of some of Poe’s hoaxes and humorous works, which probably initially triggered the idea to connect the father of the detective story with the ‘cold case’ of the London Monster. Further, I remembered from a biographical preface to a collection of Poe’s works that his grandparents were actors on the London stage when the Monster was at large and there were theories at the time that an actor or actors with a facility for disguise were the true culprits behind the Monster’s crimes.

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Tell us about the real timing and the fictitious story of Poe’s grandparents.

Reports of a ‘Monster’ attacking women on the streets of London began in 1788 and escalated after the Queen’s birthday celebrations late January 1790. John Julius Angerstein offered a reward for the villain’s capture and conviction in May 1790 and soon after one of the Monster’s victims accused a man of being her attacker. He was convicted after two farcical trials and served six years in  prison. Coincidentally, Poe’s grandfather disappears from records in 1790, at roughly the time the accused was imprisoned, and his grandmother and mother set sail for Boston in November 1795, arriving 3 January 1796, just when the accused was released from prison. This timing fit nicely with the idea that Poe’s grandparents might be the true culprits behind the Monster’s crimes and that his grandmother feared repercussions from the person who took the rap.

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The ping-pong of Poe and Dupin as a double act – both fact and fiction – works particularly well in the novel. Can you talk about how this evolved as you were writing the various drafts?

Of course I revisited Poe’s three Dupin tales to reacquaint myself with his character, voice, mannerisms, to try to lift him from the page and put him in new situations. I suggested that the unknown narrator in the Dupin stories is Poe himself, that he met Dupin in Paris as the narrator did in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. I also read a number of Poe’s letters as found on the www.EAPOE.org site, again to get a sense of his personal voice. As Dupin is the ultimate ratiocinator, highly intellectual, dispassionate, and uncannily good at deduction, I wanted to focus on Poe’s use of imagination along with logic when trying to solve a mystery, but being tripped up by his emotions and the entire issue of family. As Dupin is depicted as a genius of ratiocination, I needed a personal obstacle — something in his character — that would undermine his efforts at solving Poe’s mystery, and I settled on a desire for revenge, a key theme in the novel. When Dupin begins to crumble due to his suppressed emotions regarding his own family, Poe has to pull himself together and utilise his ratiocination skills in conjunction with his imagination.

And I think that’s what makes your book so special: how the imagination and the rational are so well entwined. Finally, Karen, after bombarding you with detailed questions, can you please whet our appetite about the next two books in the trilogy?

Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru is set in Philadelphia, 1844, where Poe wrote some of his best known tales. Poe’s benefactress, Helena Loddiges, a bird taxidermist from the famous Loddiges plant nursery in Hackney, East London enlists Poe to solve the murder of her father’s bird collector in Peru. Poe and Dupin are drawn into a mystery involving archaeological looting, ornithomancy, a kidnapping, and treasure books, against the backdrop of Philadelphia’s Nativist riots.

Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead will be set in 1849, after Dupin invites Poe to help him vanquish his nemesis, the man who ruined the Dupin family during the French Revolution and during the Reign of Terror. The duo are soon embroiled in a battle of wits fought within Paris’s famous necropolis, a strange underground city full of unexpected riches and secrets, assisted by Dupin’s band of  ‘Apaches’, criminals who live in the catacombs and answer to their own laws.

Thank you, Karen, for putting such thought into the myriad of questions and for making me want to re-read the book again! I am so looking forward to the next two books.

Keep up to date with Karen on her website and visit/like the Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster Facebook page  

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Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster Point Blank, (Oneworld Publications):

7 April 2016 (hardback/ kindle),

5 January 2017 (paperback)

Pegasus Books (USA): 11 October 2016 (hardback/ kindle)

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Writers Chat 14: Nessa O’Mahony on “The Branchman” (Arlen House: Galway, 2018)

Nessa, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on your debut novel, The Branchman, which follows on from four previously published books (three critically acclaimed poetry collections plus a novel in verse).

READERS: To win a signed copy of THE BRANCHMAN, simply comment on this blog saying why you’d like a copy and what you enjoyed about our chat. Winner will be drawn on Monday 29th October!

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Although in previous poetry collections you have explored some of your family history, and, in particular, that of your grandfather, for your latest publication, The Branchman, you explore a fictionalised version of his early time in An Garda Síochána using the genre of a thriller and the form of a novel. How did you decide the novel was the right form for the story?

NOM: Thanks so much for having me, Shauna! And you’re absolutely right, I’ve previously used poetry to explore family history – it was a consistent theme in each of the four previous volumes, but I think there was also always a strong narrative thread in the poems I included. The verse novel, which was a PhD project, deliberately explored the overlaps between poetry and narrative; it was straining at the bit to be a novel, to be honest, so I think it was only a matter of time before I committed myself to a full-length prose narrative. But it was researching my grandfather Michael McCann’s life that finally convinced me the time was right to try my hand as novel-writing.

I’d been researching his time spent in the new Garda Síochána and made contact with the Garda Archives to see what I could find out about his time spent there. All I got back was an A4 page with information about his date of enlistment, and retirement, and the fact that he’d given ‘exemplary service’. I knew from reading newspapers of the period that there was considerably more to meet the eye than that and that he must have seen some remarkable events; Ireland during the period immediately after the Civil War was still a lawless place, and I imagined there’d be any number of alarming incidents to recount. Somebody was going to write a good piece of civil war noir fiction, and I decided I wanted that to be me.

SG: You’ve really captured that adage that rather than write what you know, writers write from what they know into what they don’t know. You wrote from the knowledge of “exemplary service” and allowed your writerly self to re-imagine and invent the story of what could be behind “exemplary” and “service”.

Now, although the pace and tone are most definitely that of a thriller/crime novel, much of the writing in The Branchman is wonderfully poetic – a lot of sensory detail, descriptions, the writing at times visceral and at times contemplative. For example in a scene where a body is found, we start with this beautiful description:

“The field behind St Brigid’s Hospital was more boy than pasture – there were no signs of any recent grazing and here and there tufts of grass and bog asphodel peppered the ground.”

Do you think this is your poet-self showing through or is it a style of writing that was more deliberate – used to reflect the external and internal world of The Branchman, Michael Mackey? And on from this, I used one of your chapters – which covered a scene or two and were deliciously short, staccato and page turning – with my novel writing group in Maynooth University and we had a discussion about your possible process. We were curious about the length – did you set out to write short, sharp chapters (given the genre and story) or was it to do with time (one can write a scene in a short space of time) or your poetic sentiment?

NOM: Well first of all, thanks so much for saying that about my style. I’d been concerned that I’d eradicated all my poetic instincts in a desire for pacy prose, so I’m delighted that you found some of it lyrical. I think I do always think like a poet when wanting to describe the world of my story and it felt natural to make use of imagery and sensual description to try to bring that world alive. I wanted the reader to see what Mackey saw, in as much sensual detail as possible. I’m not sure that he has the soul of a poet, but he certainly is an observant man with a good eye for detail.

As for those short chapters, it started off accidental but became deliberate as I grew aware of the advantage of being able to switch scenes mid-way through the action. It’s very possible that my poetic instinct to distill things to their essence influenced the shape of the chapters in the first instance – that I was seeing them much as I see stanzas and ensuring that they contained only the essential information. But then I realised that one could generate suspense by switching to a new character or a new site of action so that each chapter became a little teaser of sorts. And I enjoyed writing that way. Some chapters are longer, of course – the ones that contain necessary backstory, for example – but most aren’t much more than a couple of pages long. I tell people that the book looks far longer to read (at 360 pages) that it actually takes and those short chapters seem to suck people in, somewhat.

SG: Yes, you’re right. The heft of the book disguises the page-turner the book is and much of this is down to the short, sharp chapters, the hooks and how you deftly manage the plot and the reveals.

The Branchman was a real page-turner, but I found that the relationships between the characters stayed with me after I’d finished the book, in particular the Daly family. You deftly capture the politics and contradictory nature of war, of nationhood, and of identity through very strong characterisation, and, of course, in your main protagonist, Detective Officer Michael Mackey.

 These themes are explored through Mackey’s relationships through the novel. We’re told that “The Civil War may be over, but there’s no peace, not by a long chalk…” and in another scene, Annie makes one of her many cutting comments to Mackey:

“Detective,” she snorted. “They let anyone into the Guards these days. As long as you were on the winning side, or at least claimed to be.”

 For a man who has fought in many places and many wars to literally keep the peace, he is now the ultimate outsider in his homeland. Danger lurks in every corner – or through the eyes of man perhaps suffering from post-traumatic stress, the possibility of it:

“It all looked innocent enough, but who knew what old animosities were lurking in those green fields?” And as he knows, “you couldn’t talk what you’d gone through or even where you’d been.”

This is a part of our national history that many families (and historians) have struggled to have honest conversations about. Do you think that in writing with such glorious detail many of the issues and contradictions by following the journey of Mackey, The Branchman could open up some new honest public conversations?  

NOM: I’d be delighted if the novel started off some public conversations. Part of the instinct to write this was my awareness of the persistent reticence about this period of our history. My grandparents lived through this time, but rarely spoke about their experiences. Anything my mother told me had been drip-fed to her by her own mother, and her father never spoke about it at all. It’s not surprising, really. How could a community that had come through the trauma of three wars (World War I, the War of Independence and the Civil War, as my grandfather had) be able to talk about things with any detachment. I’m convinced that half the population had undiagnosed PTSD. Add to the mix the change in political allegiances in the newly independent Ireland – all those soldiers coming back from the Somme, unable to speak about where they’d been – and the guilt of the dreadful things done to friends and neighbours during the Civil War and you have a very toxic recipe for dysfunction, which of course the crime-writer thrives upon. I’d never read stories set in this period, and I really feel that creative writing can help us to explore what had previously been unsayable or undiscussable, if that’s a word.

I also think that we’ve shown that we can deal with difficult topics during this first half of the decade of commemoration, but most people admit that public debate will get more and more difficult the closer we get to the anniversaries of the War of Independence and the Civil War, where many facts are still virulently contested. So I think that any creative writing that prompts discussion and an effort to understand the nature of those troubled times should be welcomed.

SG: Yes, there seems to be a burgeoning maturity in our psyche when it comes to assessing our recent history. I hope The Branchman will play a part in these public conversations – art in all its forms is often a way in, and indeed, for historians examining social history, historiography, art is often the key.

You’ve said that Mackey

“bears more than a passing resemblance to my grandfather but, as with many fictional heroes, has his own characteristics, flaws and plot points, which almost certainly never happened in real life, or at least not in the way I tell them here.”

Could you comment on how you found that process – using fact to create fiction and how the two overlapped, intertwined, and possibly changed as you wrote and edited the novel. Indeed, is it that you hold the emotional centre of the truth and work out from there?

NOM: I’ve been playing with the overlap between fact and fiction all my writing life, I suppose, filling the hiatuses and gaps with my own imaginings so that the characters I write about from real life end up being highly fictionalised. Michael Mackey is inspired by my grandfather, but I have little memory of the real man (I was 6 when he died) and drew on my mother’s stories about him for the main inspiration. But as the narrative developed, Mackey’s character had to change as he took on traits needed for the plot. This fictionalisation is especially true of the ‘love interest’ if I can call Annie that. She was originally based much more on my grandmother, but as the plot developed, I needed her to take on a much more dynamic motivation than my grandmother would ever have recognised (indeed she’d have been appalled by her fictional counterpart, I suspect). So yes, I do hope that there is an emotional centre of truth in the novel, but rather than these characters being similar to my own grandparents, they should be believable characters in their own rights, with plausible motivations that ring true.

SG: I think Mackey and Annie, as characters in the novel certainly ring true, I suppose I was curious about the process of transference and filtering. On another note, I loved the sense of place you create in The Branchman. Galway and Mayo feature heavily but we hear about Dublin, America, England too. Many of the characters have returned to Ballinasloe having previously been sent away. In some cases to create safety or for safety, (Mackey, Latham), and for others, such as Annie, Ballinasloe is the place they have found as a safe haven. The notion of return and change – in identity, in politics – is a motif that I enjoyed very much through the novel. Did you set out to explore identity and place, in particular?

NOM: I’m so pleased you enjoyed the sense of place. It was very important that I got that right, particularly in the case of Ballinasloe, which is my mother’s beloved home town and a place I’ve visited with her many times. Indeed, when I began to write the book, I took a trip with her and we walked around many of granddad’s old haunts, even visiting the police station. I took that ‘field-work’ with me in the writing and redrafting of the novel, wanting to be sure that I was accurate about where places were and whether it would be possible to walk from location to another in the time I suggest. My mother’s sense of place is particularly strong – at age 90, she still returns in her memory to a childhood spent exploring Ballinasloe. I was very envious of her growing up, as the pebble-dashed childhood surburb of Churchtown where we lived seemed very pale in comparison. So I guess that fed into my recreation of a fictional Ballinasloe here. Kiltimagh had a similar status – I’d heard almost as many stories about that town as I had about Ballinasloe, and wanted to present that correctly too. But you’re right, and I hadn’t really thought about it until you said it, the book is also about remaking identity and trying to fit in. Practically everyone here is an outsider – if they weren’t one before, the various wars made them so, so people’s identities are shifting all the time – they have to as a matter of survival.

SG: I can’t leave our chat without commenting on the stunning cover image. Arlen House is well known for their use of art, and with The Branchman, the cover shows a detail from a painting by Brian Maguire entitled The World is Full of Murder. Did you have an input into the decision making around the title of your novel and the cover?

NOM: There’s a great story around the cover, actually. We’d orginally been talking about using a Sean Keating painting (one of his Civil War series) as the cover art, but that was becoming too difficult to source and time was running out. Then, by coincidence, I was down in Skibbereen on holiday when the Great Hunger exhibition was being shown at the local arts centre, Uilleann. We wandered around and came across Brian Maguire’s painting, which is a huge and dramatic canvas. Apart from the image’s sheer beauty, the title conveyed everything I wanted to suggest in the novel, and I had to have it for the book. I’d no idea how to contact Brian, but this is Ireland, where everyone knows somebody who knows somebody. I contacted a friend who knew Brian; he passed on Brian’s email address and I’d got permission both from him and from Quinnipiac University, who own the painting, within a day.

As for the title, it was The Branchman, from the outset. I had the title before I had the novel. I’ve no idea where it came from, it was just there. And I googled it to check that there wasn’t another novel with the same title out there. There wasn’t at the time I started, although more recent google searches have revealed there is now another one in the US, though it appears to be horror rather than crime!

SG: Wow. Permission within a day. It was certainly meant to be. I love that you had your title before the novel. Fantastic. 

Some fun questions

  1. What are you reading now? I’ve just started Anna Burns’s Milkman. It’s every bit as great as people say it is.
  2. I’m reading it too! So far, wonderful. City or town? Well, I am a Dubliner, so it has to be city, doesn’t it? I do love my rickety dirty old Dublin.
  3. Mountains or sea? Sea, in a heartbeat. It’s the recurring dream to live by the sea – I was lucky enough to live with a sea-view when I was doing my PhD in Wales – and that was the best time of my life in so many ways.
  4. What’s your favourite drink when you’re writing? Sadly, a nice cup of tea. I’d have loved to have said absinth, honestly.
  5. Ha! That put a smile on my face. I love Earl Grey tea when I’m deep into a book and a strong black coffee when I’m starting off. Nothing ‘cool’ like absinth for me either!

Lastly, where can we find you reading from The Branchman? I’ll be reading from The Branchman at the Speakers’ Corner sessions at the Murder One Festival in Smock Alley on the 3rd November, at 11am. There’ll be a Belfast launch for it at the Crescent Arts Centre on 16th November, and I’ll be reading from it at the Rostrevor Festival in Co. Down on 24th November.

Great to hear that we can catch you in a variety of places, Nessa. The Murder One Festival sounds fantastic. I believe tickets can be obtained hereThanks, again, for engaging so generously in our chat and for providing such insight into the process and hopes of The Branchman. I wish you much continued success. 

Readers, keep up to date with Nessa 

READERS: To win a signed copy of THE BRANCHMAN, simply comment on this blog saying why you’d like a copy and what you enjoyed about our chat. Winner will be drawn on Monday 29th October!

……And the winner is…..

IMAG1184Andrew! Congratulations. I’ll put you in touch with Nessa. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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Writers Chat 13: Nuala O’Connor on “Becoming Belle” (Piatkus: UK, 2018)

READERS! To be in with a chance to win a free signed copy of Becoming Belle, just add your name and a comment below and say why you’d love to read Becoming Belle! All the names will be put into a draw and the winner announced on Friday 14th September at 19.00hr (Irish time)

Welcome, Nuala. When we last had a chat in February of this year, you told me that your Da said he ‘fell in love’ with Belle. What better review could you get? Having now read Becoming Belle, I also felt myself falling for her, hoping that the men around her would become as strong and feisty as Belle herself.

And hearing you read from Becoming Belle in August at the wonderful Victorian Afternoon Tea (at No. 1 Pery Square in Limerick) and at your launch at the Gutter Bookshop in Dublin on 5th September (launched beautifully by Mia Gallagher) – well these readings really brought the era to life.

Becoming Belle UK cover

SG: Tell me firstly about the structure of the novel. We know the end point – Belle is the Countess of Clancarty in 1891 – and the novel brings us into Belle’s life in the four years prior to this point through dated sections and short chapters with wonderful titles such as “A Promise”, “A Performance”, “A Ceremony”, “An Outpouring” and so on. Did you have fun playing with the structure or did the story come to you formed as such?

NOC: Well, the novel I submitted as complete is very different to the novel that’s published today. It’s 40k words longer for one thing. I had started Belle’s story much later – at the point where she is already a successful actress and is changing her name from Isabel to Belle – but my editors urged me to go back to her childhood and tell the story chronologically rather than in flashbacks. There were three re-writes which was rather challenging.

I love using chapter titles, it’s my homage to E.M. Forster who did it so prettily and wittily.

SG: Well, the challenge was worth it – I really loved getting to know Belle as a young woman, away from her destiny yet yearning for it!

One of the relationships which I really enjoyed was that between Belle and Flo. They work and perform together (as the Bilton Sisters) but also have an incredibly deep understanding of each other. “They were as familiar as a cradle song with each other’s foibles and frailties.”

You show their support of each other through their singing warm-ups, and their dress, with wonderful historical detail. I was really taken with the milliner Madame Gilbert who, we are told, “had a generous ear and a snug, discreet mouth”. What a great description, and of course, most important for sisters who are famous. Did historical records help in this respect or is the heart-warming relationship in Becoming Belle that of your imagination?

NOC: There really are very few historical records about Belle and Flo. There’s the court case coverage and a few theatre reviews. All of that bellowing of life into long dead lungs is where the imagination comes into play. I have sisters myself so it’s not hard to imagine the sisterly honesty and shorthand in speech, I know it first-hand. My research involved a lot of poring over photographs and reading of social history to try to put together a picture of what life was like for the feisty Victorian woman, as opposed to the ‘ideal’ woman of that age. Belle and Flo were bohemians and their lives and personalities had to reflect that.

SG: It sounds like very enjoyable research, Nuala.

Much of Becoming Belle is concerned with the prickly thorns and muddy waters of motherhood that come through as the story progresses and also the mother/daughter relationship that Belle and Flo have with their mother which we see in the first part of the novel. This is a theme that you enjoy exploring in much of your work. She really was a strong and inspirational woman, so sure of what she wanted, a feminist centuries ahead of her time, if you will, something in her which her mother sees early on. As you did your research and wrote the novel did you discover anything about Belle that surprised you?

NOC: I suppose, in a sense, her personality is my invention. In press photographs of Belle, she often looks deeply melancholic but the events of her life show that she must have had deep courage and daring to act as she did (baby out of wedlock, elopement with a viscount etc.) So I wanted to paint a picture of a woman who, initially, was ambivalent about motherhood, who wanted to get on and who pushed herself forwards by every means she knew. It takes ages for me to understand my characters and round them out so that they are nicely flawed but still somewhat likeable or, at least, compelling. I suppose I didn’t fully know Belle until I’d written the whole story because, by the end, she realises what she has wanted all along.

SG: Following on from this, the Bilton Sisters manage to live life how they wish to in terms of earning a living, being true to themselves, and having fun all within the confines of the expectations of family, society and gender. This, despite the fact, as Belle says to Flo early on – “life is different for ladies; we don’t possess the freedoms afforded to men”.

However, the Clancarty family are more concerned about material wealth and appearances and threaten to destroy all that Belle has worked for. Without spoiling the plot, how unusual were the freedom of the Bilton Sisters in Victorian London? How different were they to their peers?

NOC: They were different to their working and upper class sisters but not to the others who worked in the milieu they were operating in. Theatre people had a different lifestyle to everyone – they worked and played by night. Because of that they mixed with the rich, who could afford to socialise often, and that’s how attachments were formed. Belle was one of the early commoner-to-countess women from the theatre world.

SG: Another strand that runs through Becoming Belle is that of friendship. I was particularly taken with the character of Wertheimer and his deep affection and friendship with Belle. He really is her saviour in many ways, and she his (in your novel), and yet she sticks fast to William, even when, at times, it seems he is not the one. From the notes at the back, Isidor Wertheimer ended up living a rather tragic life after Belle left London. How drawn were you to his character?

NOC: Friendship really interests me; I have loads of acquaintances but, because I’m an introvert, very few deep friendships. I crave more of those.

I adore Wertheimer, he’s the solid, sweet best friend we all dream of: classy, fun, a great listener and very helpful. Love is fickle: Belle appears not to have loved Wertheimer the way he loved her and, though William is a bit of an un-catch, in many ways, she seems to have genuinely loved him.

SG: Yes, at many points throughout the novel, I was wishing she’d change, and go to Wertheimer!

Names and identity are crucial to the characters in Becoming Belle, as the title suggests. From the first page we see Isabel Bilton playing around with versions of her name and, as she meets the various people of London, they are all defined by their name – class, religion, wealth – and this extends, somewhat sadly, to her own child who changes from Isidor to Dory, again, to suit his circumstances. Our names are so important and even more so if we are in the public eye, as Belle, Flo, and the Clancarty clan were.  

NOC: I’m obsessed with names, it’s one of the joyous parts of writing for me. Obviously 99% of my characters for this novel already had their names, but I was thrilled when I discovered, through research, the real names of characters like Jacob Baltimore and Godley Robinson. Such brilliant, evocative names. The fact that Belle named her first child after Wertheimer is significant and later, she gave her daughter his mother’s name, Franziska, as her second name. Unearthing details like that always gives me an excavational thrill.

SG: When I reached the last page of Becoming Belle, I really wanted to read on, to stay with Belle in Galway, see how she handled that new life. Is there any chance of a sequel?

NOC: Oh janey, I doubt it. I’m waaaaay into the writing of novel #5 now and I’ve so many other projects I want to tackle, including a contemporary novel that’s been nagging at me for years. But, never say never, maybe Belle will call me back some day.

Lastly, Nuala, some fun questions:

  • Canaries or Budgies (there’s a thread from the novel in there too!)? We had dozens of budgies as kids but as a canary owner now, I have to say canaries.
  • Sand or grass? Oh, that’s hard. I’ll say grass as I grew up in the Liffey Valley, surrounded by it.
  • Coffee or tea? Tea. I can only drink milky, sugary coffee so I just don’t bother.
  • What was the last history book you read? I’m currently reading Jan Morris’s sublime Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, which is social history/travelogue. She is amazingly clever, her sentences are delicious.
  • What are you reading now? As usual I have about ten books on the go including The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, which is a fabulous Georgian-era novel: great language, very funny. Also Meg Pokrass’s latest flash fiction collection, Alligators at Night (odd, quirky, funny); I’ll be reviewing Lorrie Moore’s fantastic book of essays, reviews and articles, See What Can Be Done. What a generous, flexible-minded writer she is. I just love her. I’m also reading scads of biographies and histories for my novel-in-progress, an Edwardian era, Europe-set story. Loving it.

A fantastic collection of books on the go! Lots of recommendations there, thanks. Tell us about readings and events relating to Becoming Belle happening in the next few months.

  • Galway launch of Becoming Belle, Ballinasloe Library, 11th September, 6pm. Launch by Mary O’Rourke.
  • Shorelines Arts Festival, Portumna 15th September, 3pm. Portumna Library.
  • Clifden Arts Week – 18th September with Alan McMonagle. 4.30pm, Station House
  • Wexford launch of Becoming Belle, Gorey Visitor Centre, 21st September, 6pm. Launch by Caroline Busher.
  • Red Line Festival, 9th October – Victorian Mavericks with Bernie McGill & Caroline Busher, 7.30pm, Pearse Museum, Dublin

  • DLR Voices, 23rd October – The Pavilion, Dun Laoghaire – reading and interview with Sarah Maria Griffin. Time tbc.

READERS! To be in with a chance to win a free signed copy of Becoming Belle, just add your name and a comment below and say why you’d love to read Becoming Belle! All the names will be put into a draw and the winner announced on Friday 14th September at 19.00hr (Irish time)

And don’t forget to follow this blog for more featured Writers Chats!

Nuala O'Connor photo by Úna O'ConnorPhoto of Nuala by Úna O’Connor. 

Keep up to date with Nuala on her website.

Writers with Artists 1: Annemiek Hamelink from Two Trees, The Netherlands

Today I publish my first post in my Writers with Artists series. I return to a piece about one of my collaboration with Dutch artist Annemiek Hamelink. The post was originally published in October 2013, this time around I have included the chapter from Happiness Comes from Nowhere. 

As part of my writing practice I often look to other art forms and talk to other artists about their practice. Annemiek Hamelink’s story bowls have often provided inspiration and she has gleaned ideas from my fiction. We have tried to blog about our back-and-forth collaborations on our real time blog “Story Crafters”. But that’s the trouble with real time and life  – they don’t move as smoothly as the pretty pictures of published collaborations!

Annemiek visited me at the end of August 2013 and arrived with a story bowl she had created based on an early version of the chapter “Possessions” from my novel Happiness Comes from Nowhere (see below – it’s a short chapter).

Annemiek had blogged about this collaboration, and talked about the difficult subject the chapter tackles. So I’d previously seen pictures of the bowl she had created but seeing it in real life – the size and the fragility of it – literally left me speechless. Here you can see an aerial view of the bowl – the porcelain delicate but strong, the curtain concealing, the dove escaping….

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Below we see a dove escaping the curtain – a bid for freedom.

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And the full effect of the piece in operation …. the red lights of hope stark against the whiteness of the fragile porcelain.

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But I think what struck me most was how people take different meanings from the words we write – and, indeed, things we create – and how the meanings others take are often the most powerful. Perhaps meanings we had not thought of or intended. And how hope is always there, even if it’s a faint glimmer.

And that, for me, is really the gift that readers bring to writing, that the viewer brings to art.

Possessions:  extract from Happiness Comes from Nowhere (Ward Wood: London, 2012)  (c) Shauna Gilligan

Possessions

The Ward Sister waved the crucifix at him like a loaded gun. It swung on an overly-long silver chain, glinting with the little sunlight that radiated through old and worn beige blinds. Her voice was harsh, croaky.

“Look what you’ve done to yourself! Is this how you thank your parents for bringing you into this world? Try to leave it? It’s a sin, you know, a mortal sin.”

Time after time it was the anger that came first. Anger at the messiness and downright un-necessary-ness of it all.

She could tell he wanted to say something, to make a sound, an objection of sorts. He tried to move but the drips attached to his right arm stopped him and instead of words, groans came from his mouth. He began to heave.

“Mother of God, there’s no hope. Just look at him.”

She blessed herself, wiping away her disgust. She wiggled her toes inside their 50-denier flesh coloured tights and picked up the notes from the locker. A self-admittance with his mother at twenty past twelve in the afternoon. She shook her head. It was probably the mother he was trying to get away from. She sighed. Another professional: a librarian from a nice part of town. One Dirk Horn. The Gardaí had come and gone: the mother in tears, the son unconscious. She’d signed to say it was a mistake, he hadn’t wanted to, he couldn’t have wanted to kill himself. They nodded, embarrassed at the legal intrusion, saying they’d be back in the morning to talk to him. If he lived, that was.

His possessions sat in a transparent plastic bag to be taken to the psychiatric ward when he was stabilised. They were listed in a row. Probably penned by one of the aides, judging by the neat handwriting:

one pair of blue jeans

one navy heavy cotton hooded jumper

one white tee-shirt

one pair of grey underpants

one pair of white socks

one right and one left of black runners

one wrist-watch with a worn tan leather strap

no valuables on person

At moments like this she found the movements of Sunday morning A&E depressing. But still, she stayed. Still, there was hope to be found in between the drunken people screaming abuse at staff, shouts for doctors and the sound of the trolleys racing bringing bodies to beds, wards, slots in the morgue. She stared at a fifty-something year old woman gyrating against a soft drinks machine yeah baby she screamed, laughing loudly oblivious to the dried blood on her face, escaped from a blow to the head. Curtains opened and closed, cries of fears and anger rose above the clang of equipment. But still, there were rosters to be organised, wards to be filled, beds to be emptied.  And soon Dirk would open his eyes to the realisation that it was still 1992, still the same weekend that he’d tried to leave behind. Continue reading “Writers with Artists 1: Annemiek Hamelink from Two Trees, The Netherlands”

Writers Chat 10: Justine Delaney Wilson on “Listen for the Weather” (Hachette: Ireland and Australia, 2018)

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Justine, You are very welcome to WRITERS CHAT. Congratulations on your second novel Listen for the Weather which was launched in May at the wonderful Gutter bookshop in Dublin.

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SG: Reading Listen for the Weather I found the voice of the narrator Beth combined with the short scenes really moved the story along and I just kept turning those pages! It was very much pitch and pace perfect. Can you tell us a little about how you picked the voice and the structure through which to tell the story of Beth and Steve’s marriage?

 JDW: Thanks Shauna. That’s really lovely to hear. My writing style tends to be sparse and precise, and my scenes and paragraphs always on the short and punchy side. Sometimes, I’ll make a conscious effort to let a scene breathe a bit more, to really give it some room or extra time, but it will jar with me immediately when I read it back, and I’ll end up putting a red line through everything that I added in the misguided interests of  fleshing things out.

I like to read fiction that doesn’t give me a mountain of background and isn’t heavy on set-up detail; I want to get straight into the heart of things. I appreciate writers who plate-spin throughout the text, allowing me to pick up the observations as I go. I rather fill my cup with the characters’ joy or pain, and with the truth of things. Not with a lot of front-loading about smells or the colour of the curtains.

I enjoy reading short stories for this reason – the writer’s time and space is precious, so everything superfluous has been cut away, and I find the writing is powerful as a result. I don’t know if I’m actually more of a natural editor than a writer really, in that I always want every single word to justify itself. My background is in research and writing for television, and journalism, so perhaps it comes from a learned need to keep things lean and concise for broadcast or for the allotted space.

In terms of writing in Beth’s voice, at this stage I know her character so well that I can second-guess her thoughts and actions in most situations. I understand what motivates her so I find writing in her voice feels natural.

SG: That’s the wonderful advantage of being with a character for so long, isn’t it. You really know their nuances, like a dear friend. Listen for the Weather is set mainly in New Zealand but there are scenes in Ireland. How important is place to love? Tell me about the split setting, one which you have experienced in your own life.

JDW: This book opens in New Zealand, a couple of years after the Rogers family moved there. My previous novel The Difference, which came out this month two years ago, was almost entirely set in Ireland, with the family’s move to New Zealand coming toward the end. Listen for the Weather is a mirror-image of it, in a way. Beth and Steve have moved to the other side of the world to outrun damage to their relationship and to escape the containment of their old lives. But of course, no amount of running, no matter where, will save any of us from ourselves.

Place is important, in that it informs and shapes our identity. And yet, it also isn’t; when faced with a threat to our family and the loss of everyone we love, we see that it is people who are our home.

I left Ireland early in the Autumn of 2016 to go to New Zealand, and I came back in the Spring of last year. I wrote most of this book while I was away, and then I returned home to a familiar place, and to similar weather as when I’d left – But everything just felt off.  It reminded me of the ‘Crowded House’ line; Walking ‘round the room singing stormy weather. I remember hearing Neil Finn interviewed about that song, Weather with You. He talked about how we create our own weather, how we are always making our own situations. I definitely think my feelings of dislocation and of having to make my own environment in New Zealand – a new life, new securities for my children on the other side of the world – informed my writing of this story and my depiction of the characters.

SG: Having lived away from Ireland for many years myself, I can totally understand that strangeness of being in your ‘home’ country and feeling totally out of kilter. I love what you say that it is people who are our home.

Now tell me about the role of the video calls Beth makes to her mother back in Ireland. What a great device to bring us out of Beth’s head, reminding the reader that another world, another past and indeed another present exist. It’s also a reminder that no matter how difficult the circumstances or experience you are going through, the normality of life is always continuing elsewhere. And yet, the normality often hides other depths, as we learn later in the book.

JDW: Through video calls we catch moments of what we’ve left behind, or what has left us. But, like photographs, these calls only show what’s in frame at the time. Sometimes what’s in frame can relieve and sate us, but sometimes it can also mislead.

Beth’s mother, Johanna, has been tethered to her own desperation for much of her adult life and so has only ever been available to Beth in a very limited way. That said, her familiar mannerisms and expressions during these calls do provide her daughter with some comfort when she desperately needs it. Small hints of Johanna’s hard-won insight into the reality of love, which comes much later in the book, are suggested earlier in some of her seemingly throw-away comments over Skype.

launch shelving

SG: I have to admit my opinion on Johanna changed as the story unfolded, for the very reasons you cite above. Having said that, my favourite character in Listen for the Weather was that of Mae, and how, many times, she is the only one of the family who is grounded in who she is and how she is – she is the solid comforter. For example in the scene when they are driving to the zoo, it’s Mae who asks for Beth’s hand right when Beth needs to be comforted. And in Ireland, it’s Mae who is the touchstone for Beth and her granddad. Really, she is herself, and not trying to fit into a role that society or family has created for her.

 JDW: I’m drawn to write about emotional turbulence – the power-plays in families; the betrayals within relationships; the sense of being at odds with your place in your own domestic world – these ordinary, but difficult, human things. Against this backdrop of adults feeling their way along their own jagged paths stands the character of 7 year-old Mae.

Mae wields a clear and positive power in this book. She manages to love more, but care less. She’s full of empathy – she is the emotional barometer in the house – and yet is nobody’s fool. I think she brings her entire family to life in a way that otherwise might never have happened for them. Mae’s disability allowed me to explore new jealousies in this novel – the uncomfortable envy a mother feels toward a ‘perfect’ child, a little girl who doesn’t have special needs.

Through the innate honesty of her daughter, Beth comes to see and cut through the artifice around her. And it’s from following Mae’s lead that she manages to get her head around what it is she needs to do.

SG: Throughout Beth’s journey, she gives us some beautifully poetic insights into her experience of what love is, or can be – a few of them:

“the heart has a blind spot….isn’t that the human condition? To desire what is not certain.”

 “love chooses not to see, chooses to ignore what doesn’t suit it.”

“The affair is a “tear in the fabric of life.”

“Most of love’s power is how badly it hurts.”

“Love with our eyes open. With the dark colours, as well as the bright.”

Was this a theme that you were always going to write about or did it emerge in the writing of the novel?

JDW:  From the get go, I wanted to look at love in this book. I think everything comes down to love, really. Having it, being denied it, growing up without it, learning to hold onto it, messing it up, confusing it with something else, confusing something else for it, cherishing it.

I’m intrigued by the accepted idea that love is kind, because it isn’t always. The “You are perfect as you are. You complete me” sort of thing doesn’t interest me at all. There’s a laziness in that idea of completion, of having reached some idyll. It’s not the sort of love I want to write about, or even read about. Love is active; it bowls you over, for better and worse. And it keeps pushing you back on yourself, on your own resources, into a space where you think and grow. Beth comes to realise that life is possible for her without Steve, which is the place I needed her to arrive at. Whatever way she goes after that is then a real, eyes-open decision, and not just one based on blind panic or lack of courage.

SG: Yes, I enjoyed being on that journey with Beth, as hard as it was in places, a realisation and a choice based on strength. As you say, a real decision.

Thanks for popping over to participate in my Writers Chat Series and for your generous answers, Justine. To finish off, I’ve five fun questions for you:

Mountains or Sea? The sea, most definitely. The sounds, the constant movement, the tidal changes, the sense of possibility. I had the privilege of living at the ocean in New Zealand and I must say that having half an hour in the evening to walk or sit at the water’s edge is something I’d highly recommend. Mountains are all very well but they don’t hold anything like the same fascination for me. After five minutes, I could probably give or take a mountain, to be honest. I like to be amongst things, amongst possibilities and activity, and I associate mountains with distance and seclusion. A city with a coastline would be my ideal. 

Coffee or tea? Tea. I’m a very committed tea drinker. The kettle in my house is always either on or still warm from the previous cup. I don’t like coffee, which is probably just as well because I’m not the best at things in moderation, and tea seems like the lesser of two charming evils.

Kindle or Paperback? Oh, paperback! I don’t own a kindle and I hope nobody ever buys me one. I like to feel the pages, to turn them, to flick back if I need to, and occasionally I’ll write on them. I love the physicality of books – the cover, the smell. And as décor, there’s surely nothing better than shelving full of well-read books, their spines lined up together. The fact that books don’t need charging is also glorious.

What are you writing now? In the latter stages of every manuscript, I swear that I’ll NEVER do this to myself again. But then the finished book comes out, and I see it in someone’s hands being read, and I quickly forget the pain of its birth. The faucet for the next novel is dripping away in the background here already. It’s called An Open Door and is set in present-day Dublin and 1990s New York.

What’s next on your ‘to read’ pile? My TBR pile was so high recently that I had to split it into a Pile A and a lesser Pile B. I was starting to feel some anxiety at the height of the tower glaring down at me. So on the top of pile A is The Long-Winded Lady, which I’ve already started. It’s a collection of Maeve Brennan’s columns for The New Yorker between 1954 and 1981, recently published by ‘The Stinging Fly’. Below Maeve, and currently in the following order to be read, are; White Houses by Amy Bloom, Problems by Jade Sharma, Norah Hoult’s Cocktail Bar and the just-added Calypso by David Sedaris. I’m dying to read Kudos by Rachel Cusk. She is among my favourite authors and this is the final book in her recent trilogy. I’m waiting for my copy to arrive, and it will rudely jump to the top of Pile A when it does.

JDW Nov pic 2

Connect with Justine on Twitter @justinedelw and her publishers @hachette

Look out for Justine in the media – articles and interviews coming up in The Irish Times, Daily Mail, Sunday Independent and The Gloss.

Writers Chat 7: Aoibheann McCann on “Marina” (WordsOnTheStreet: Galway, 2018)

Aoibheann, Welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series and thanks for participating so fully.

Congratulations on your debut novel Marina which Mike McCormack has described (and I’d thoroughly agree!) as a “singular enchantment” and which also has a really stunning cover:

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Cover of Marina Purchase Direct from Publishers http://www.wordsonthestreet.com/

SG: First and foremost, tell me a little about Marina’s love of the sea.

The story seems to be about a circular journey from childhood to adulthood, and from Ireland to England, yet at another level, Marina seems to be a contemplation on how disconnected we all are from the land – dry and wet ground – that we live on and in.

You’re from Donegal and now living in Galway. Did you use your own knowledge of the sea and its landscape, and also that sense of being away from home (as Marina is in London) in writing this beautiful sensory novel?

AMC: Marina’s love of the sea is a theme throughout the novel, and it has a very strong pull for her. Throughout the novel, she associates the sea with escape, be it by boat or by swimming. Though when she eventually does escape across the Irish Sea, it does not work out so well for her. I think we are all very disconnected from the earth these days and that causes us a lot of problems.

I grew up beside the sea and was brought out on boats from a very young age. My family were mariners for generations so I have a deep generational connection with the sea. Luckily I still live near the sea in Galway and can see it out of my bedroom window. The further I get from the sea the more trapped I feel, but it also utterly scares me, as a lot of my relatives died at sea.

I lived in London for a number of years, my daughter was actually born there, and I although I loved the freedom of it, I always missed the sea and had a strong urge to return to Ireland. Especially when I was pregnant for some reason. I think I actually saw a mirage on a particularly hot day just before she was born!

The sea helped me to write the book too. I was inspired to write Marina in the aquarium in Salthill in Galway. I was looking at a fish in a seawater tank, it looked miserable, and this is where Marina sprang from.

SG: What an amazing image – you by the sea gazing at fish trapped in a tank, both surrounded by seawater…But then there’s all that history and inner knowledge you have about the sea that seeps through the novel. 

I loved the writing throughout In particular, I loved the poetic writing which grabs you right from the start:

“Belonging like they did when I saw them, floating in the sea, the green fronds of seaweed caressing their pale skin. They are nibbled gently, caressed by tiny fish who, bit by bit, ingest them, return them, welcome them.”

It also extends into the stuff of life – we’re told 

“The piano was truly the instrument of fate” 

and, when Jamie is born, he’s

“red and squashed, as if he’d come out of a shell.”

AMC: Thank you! I started off as a poet, in fact the first piece of writing I got published was a poem. Though I rarely write poetry these days, it is still there in my writing. I think the prologue and the intervals are the most poetic parts of the book, where Marina describes the world as she sees it in her very disjointed way. I was inspired to write these parts in my garden and walking by the sea. I think especially at these points I could see ordinary things from Marina’s perspective, and as she seems to be able to zone so completely into things and is so removed from social concerns, she is able to describe things more precisely or more poetically. I think poetry is about seeing things from a very different perspective.

SG: Yes! And now that you say it, that’s really what I loved about Marina – that sense of the word view being turned somewhat. 

I read Marina in one sitting and gasped when I came to the end – without revealing anything – it was like I was in the sea, coming up for air, or that a wave of a life of emotions had just washed over me. For me, this is a great reading experience, when you’re taken somewhere else entirely and then when the book finishes, you’re back to the grey skies (not unlike those of Marina’s life!) and reality. How important a role do you think atmosphere plays in this story – in keeping the reader embedded in the parallel clarity and murkiness of the waters of Marina’s thoughts, compared to Jamie’s thoughts which are shown as been numbed with medication?

AMC: Again, thank you, that’s great feedback for a writer! The first draft of the story didn’t feature the parallel story of Marina in the present, which I think provides the context of her version of the ultimately tragic events and her justification for what happened. It also adds to the atmosphere, as it is clear that her thoughts are murky from the start. Dr. O’Hara provides the clear voice of reason, but can be very harsh. I often think we put labels on people so we can rationalise their actions and there isn’t always a rational explanation for why people behave as they do. We like to think we can explain people’s behaviour by looking at their childhood but I don’t think we can. Of course, Jamie never really gets a voice, so we only have Marina’s (unreliable) version of the events, so we have to take her word for it. So overall I tried to make the atmosphere like the deep water that Marina inhabits in her mind.

SG: Yes. It saddens me how labels often seek answers yet in doing so can move further from those very answers. 

Marina is also about relationships. We have the one which is constant – Marina and her relationship to sea, including being at sea for most of the story – and we have the one which we, as readers, see evolving into something that isn’t quite what we would have hoped for Marina: her love for Jules, the young man she falls for at university in London. It’s really a question of like attracting like rather than opposites attract – especially if we consider that the less they verbally communicate, the less they each play their instruments. Can you talk a little about that relationship – in which Marina, at one stage, feels

“smaller than an ant”

 AMC: I think Marina and Jules’ relationship is ultimately very unhealthy and obsessional. It is further exacerbated by Sandra’s influence. I think Marina tries to find a replacement for Jamie in Jules, but also she feels haunted by what she feels is a betrayal of Jamie so I think she justifies Jules’ cruelty because of this.

Jules and his mother are very controlling. I think Marina feels smothered by this but the further away from the sea and her music she gets, the more trapped she becomes, and it takes something drastic for her to return to Ireland.

SG: We’ve talked about the role of the land in Marina, but of course there’s the wider question of the environment and how we are destroying it. Can you talk about how Jules and his involvement with environmental groups adds to that theme, indeed, perhaps this being the one of the first things that Marina learns about him is also what attracts her to him.

AMC: The environmental theme was always a big part of the book, though it isn’t really part of the plot. I thought about evolution a lot when I was writing the first draft: if we are so evolved as a species, why are we destroying the environment that sustains us? If you consider this, it actually explains Marina’s destructive behaviour and why she ultimately feels humanity isn’t all it is cracked up to be. There is a strand of psychology called eco-psychology which believes that mental illnesses are caused by environmental damage; if the earth is being destroyed, then we inevitably will be too. As it suffers, so do we. Also, I thought a lot about the Buddhist Wheel of Life, which shows evolution in the form of reincarnation; the more good deeds we do, the more likely we are to ‘evolve’ into a higher life form. Again, I thought, are we really a higher life form if we are destroying ourselves like this?

As for eco-warriors, I hung around with some at college, and they were always so sure of themselves and what they were doing. Jules’ character and especially those of his friends are inspired by them. My life experience is in no way like Marina’s, but I was asked to stop eating a Kit Kat in my own house by an eco-warrior! I think Marina is so lost and scared, she latches on to Jules as he seems so sure of everything, as do his friends. They see something wrong in the world too, and are better able to articulate this than she is.

Yes – these are all questions that I asked myself as I was reading and, more so, when I’d finished the novel, and, found myself understanding Marina’s behaviour.

Lastly, Five fun questions, Aoibheann:

Dogs or Cats? Dogs. I have two!

  1. Paperbacks or Hardbacks? Paperbacks.
  2. What page are you on of the book you’re reading now? 89 of Echoland by Per Petterson
  3. Describe the story in one word? Childhood
  4. What’s next on your ‘to read’ pile? The Invisible Ones by Steph Penny

Thank you for such insight, Aoibheann and I wish you much success with Marina. 

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 You can keep up to date with Aoibheann (above) on her website.

LAUNCHING MARINA

Little John Nee will launch Marina in the Town Hall Theatre, Galway on 19th April 2018.

Listen to Aoibheann reading from Marina in Athenry Library on 10th May.

 

Writers Chat 6: Lisa Harding on “Harvesting” (New Island: Dublin, 2017)

Writers Chat with Lisa Harding, shortlisted for Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award…

Lisa, Welcome to “Writers Chat” and congratulations on the much-deserved accolades Harvesting (New Island, 2017) has been receiving, including being awarded The Kate O’Brien Award (2018), short listed in the Newcomer section for Irish Book of the Year in 2017 and now shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award (winners announced on May 30th in Listowel)

HARVESTINGbook pic

SG: Firstly, Lisa, let’s talk about the many stories behind Harvesting and what drove you to take on such a harrowing and emotional journey with your two strong female narrators Sammy and Nico.

LH: The book came about because of my involvement in a campaign called Stop Sex Trafficking of Children and Young People run by the children’s Rights Alliance and the Body Shop. At the launch of that campaign in 2012, I was invited in my capacity as an actress to read first-hand accounts of some of the girls who had been trafficked to Ireland. What shocked me was how prevalent the trade is, how young some of the girls are and also that some of the girls that fall into the rings are Irish. Up until that day I had no idea this trade was happening on our shores.

It took me three years before I allowed myself to start to write about the topic. I struggled with legitimacy around telling these stories: who am I to give voice to these girls’ experiences? I am not an expert, nor a survivor, but something had burrowed inside me and I genuinely felt haunted by the testimonies I read that day. I found myself unable and unwilling to forget, and so set out to give voice to these hidden victims of this dark, flourishing world.

Sammy and Nico, although purely fictitious character, are composites of some of the personal accounts I was furnished with.

SG: I think that is why both women come across as such authentic characters. Now tell me about your process – in getting into the psyches of these women, in being able to so aptly explore their inner and outer worlds. Did you find that your experience in play writing and acting helped? I’m thinking of scenes, for example, where Sammy says “I empty out inside and allow myself to go floppy” (p.209) or Nico when she reminds herself before she takes the man’s stray hairs: “If I don’t breathe I’m not really there, not really.” (p.213)

LH: I adopt an improvisational approach to any creative process, which is greatly informed by my training as an actress.  I always start with a voice, and if I feel I can channel that voice, step inside the character’s skin, fully embody it, the writing will flow naturally from there.  Initially I didn’t know Harvesting would be a novel, the form was mutable as I was allowing different voices space inside my head. It could have been a play, or a series of interconnected short stories, but over time two voices start to clamour for more attention and space on the page. The consciousness of Sammy and Nico felt more alive and embodied than any of the other characters. The novel is in essence a series of alternating monologues told from the perspective of an Irish girl and a Moldovan girl.

As Harvesting is written in the first person present tense, everything that happens to these girls is being experienced and written about in the moment. The process of writing in this way is rather like channelling, where you bypass the conscious mind, or the intellect as much as possible and give yourself over to your instinct.

SG: Oh how wonderful that you felt free enough to let the narrative evolve and become the form it needed to become to tell the story. Lisa, let’s consider the role of place in Sammy’s Dublin is both her anchor and the city which fails to save her, while Nico’s Moldova fades as Dublin – what she is exposed to as ‘Dub’ – engulfs her. It seems Sammy and Nico both loose who they are and where they’re from simultaneously.

LH: That’s a really interesting observation, and not one I was consciously aware of at the time of writing. For Nico, the natural world was her home, growing up in a rural Moldovan village where her favourite activities were climbing trees and swimming in the rivers. Suddenly she is wrenched from this environment, the only world she ever knew, and is transported in cars, boats and planes from Moldova to Italy to London to Belfast, then finally Dublin. She is disoriented and dislocated early on. She regularly reverts to her favourite childhood spots in the moment of trauma where she dissociates from herself and her actual environment. I imagined her focus was slightly blurred in a bid to protect herself and so Dublin is experienced as a characterless place that could be anywhere. She only sees the inside of the holding house and the inside of a car and the inside of bedrooms. She yearns for nature yet has no direct contact; all she sees through fogged up windows is grey skies and rain.

Sammy is a suburban Dublin girl, so her environment is less alien, but her experience is. They are both brought to a ghost estate and their life of entrapment is played out against the backdrop of private parties, convention centres, bars, hotels. I felt if I was looking out on their world in their particular emotional state it would be heightened, bizarre, terrifying. Even those environments that were previously familiar take on an outlandish, almost ghoulish quality.

SG: Without revealing anything, Sammy and Nico start off and end in very different places. Between their beginnings and endings in their relationship we encounter moving tenderness, humorous quips while they each try to protect and provide some sort of comfort – and even love – each other.

LH: My two main motivators for writing this book were: (1) How can this happen? And (2) how do the girls survive and assimilate this sustained level of abuse? This second question feeds into your observation about their relationship, which is intense, at times verging on the hysterical. They are teenage girls who form a fierce bond under siege. I fell in love with the two girls as they navigated an unlikely friendship that becomes their everything. In each other they find humanity in a brutal, uncaring world. I was surprised how both girls use humour to deflect, protect and ultimately bond. But then, I realised they are so young and so impressionable and they need that ferocious love and loyalty to survive.

SG: I love how, at times, your writing is stark – factual almost – and then, also beautifully poetic. Nico describes the pain of two sisters as “palpable – it beats in the air like injured birds, trapped” (p236) and in another scene “I squint and blur my vision, but cannot see a rescuing knight no matter how hard I try.” (p281)

Sammy, locked inside on a day that seems particularly long tries

“not to listen to the bird-song, which I can hear over the wind and thrum of the tumble dryer. She’s so loud and insistent for such a tiny thing. I know, I know, I get it, birdie, but shut the fuck up, will ya?” (p242)

Do you think using different styles and language to convey changes in emotional tempo shows us that in the most awful of circumstances there is often – though unfortunately, not always – a glimmer of hope?

LH: That’s a really lovely compliment, thank you! Again, an unconscious lucky accident,  although I imagine my history in theatre fed into that melding of styles. Writers like Tennessee Williams, and in a completely contrasting way Sarah Kane, bring poetry, lyricism and a heightened sensibility to experiences of brutality. The lives Sammy and Nico are living are so far removed from the norms of the everyday that I felt colloquial language couldn’t always express their complex interior lives. They are so outside themselves and unable to process what is happening to them in the moment that I did struggle at times to find words to express this turmoil. Music could perhaps better express this turbulent inner landscape of trauma. I guess in some ways, heightened theatrical or poetic language can offer a kind of transformation, or transmutation, so perhaps unconsciously this was what I was playing with.

Yes, hope. I felt the fact of them being alive and capable of loving each other meant there was always hope.

SG: You participated and read from Harvesting as part of a symposium on modern slavery in Armagh on March 8th. How powerful do you think writing can be in today’s world where brevity is king?

LH: That was an extraordinary event. It was humbling to realise the importance of the role of the arts in raising awareness. The organiser of the symposium had come across Harvesting some time ago and was moved to organise an entire event on modern slavery because of his experience reading the book. So, I guess we cannot underestimate the effect of writing, even in such a time-poor, social-media saturated climate where Netflix is king. I imagine a visual medium might have even more impact, but then we lose the intimacy and interiority that only the novel allows.

SG: I think the key is that the novel form encourages or even demands self-reflection from the reader after it’s been read – in a way that other forms don’t.

Lastly, Lisa, some fun questions:

What are you reading now? Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante.

I read that over Christmas – in one sitting – and really loved it. Both disturbing and beautiful.

What’s your go-to dinner? Stir-fry with veggies. I’m a terrible cook!

Well stir-fry sounds delicious!

What writing are you working on? A new novel about the generational impact of alcoholism and the limitations of recovery.

Oh, the limitations of recovery. I’m intrigued.

What’s next for you? The above novel, and then…hopefully others. I’m a newbie in love with the form.

Sounds like you’re on a roll, Lisa. Keep on going!

Launch pic

Thanks again for popping over for the sixth “Writers Chat”. I look forward to reading more of your work over time and wish you more of the very best with Harvesting which can be ordered here.